Reflecting on the first year of the Rights in Justice project

April 17th 2024

In this blog Claire Lightowler  reflects on the progress that has been made during the first year of the Rights in Justice project. 

The Rights in Justice project, funded by The Promise Partnership, is celebrating the conclusion of its first year, so it’s a good opportunity to reflect on the journey so far and where we’re going next. 

The funding has allowed Clan Childlaw to make conflict with the law issues a strategic focus and to expand our offer for children and young people in conflict with the law.  Our focus has been on change within the Children’s Hearing System, because this is the space in which most offending by children is dealt and it is the context in which we work and so are best connected to.  

The key lesson from this work is that change requires a multi-facetted approach. The Rights in Justice project involves improving legal advice and representation, strategic litigation, policy influencing, workforce development, participation and engagement, and sharing learning. It appears to us to be the mix of work that is helping us achieve some of the most significant changes. For instance, our work to improve direct legal representation informs the issues we raise in our policy influencing work, ensuring the work is grounded in what matters to children and young people. Or, if the policy is good but there are issues in relation to implementation, we have tools available to us such as workforce development and legal challenge. This ability to adapt our approach based on what is needed for change is a key element of our success.  

What have we achieved: 

Legal Advice and Representation  

  • In our first year we have achieved positive outcomes for individual children and young people, and as word has spread we have seen an associated increase in enquiries to Clan Childlaw about conflict with the law matters. 
  • Where appropriate we’ve been challenging whether offence grounds are necessary, exploring whether other grounds are more appropriate to reflect what’s been going on for a child and, for instance, if care and protection grounds can be used instead. This has been beneficial for the children concerned as it is clearer to them that the primary issue is what’s happened to them and their contact with the Children’s Hearing system would not appear on a future disclosure check. 
  • We have been seeking to ensure that where offence grounds are used that contextual information is recorded, so that what is going on for the child concerned can then be taken into consideration when a decision is being made about the disclosure of criminal records in the future. 
  • We have also improved our understanding of the negative implications of not accepting offence grounds at a children’s hearing. For instance, this means the process is extended and so offences can hang over a child which can hinder a child moving on. There can also be particular issues in terms of disclosure periods if a child will reach the age of 18 before the date of conviction (not the date of the actual offence), so there can be benefits in settling matters early.  This improved understanding has ensured the legal representation we are providing to children in conflict with the law on such matters has improved.  
  • We are providing a more holistic legal service for children in conflict with the law within Clan by improving our infrastructure to ensure we are making the connections between conflict with the law issues and other legal needs, ensuring we are supporting children with all of the legal implications stemming from their situation. For instance, a child who is accused of an offence may be an unaccompanied asylum-seeker, and the acceptance of the offence may affect their asylum claim. Or there may be issues with housing where a child is in conflict with the law.  

Policy Influencing 

  • We have provided information and supported MSPs to raise concerns about legal representation for children referred to the Children’s Hearing system on offence grounds, resulting in a commitment to act by the Minister for Children, Young people and Keeping the Promise.  

Participation and Engagement  

  • We worked with children and young people to produce an animation, Alright, about what children and young people want from their lawyers [see this blog which documents the process]. The animation has been used in meetings and individual conversations with young people and we have designed a workshop for young people which uses the animation to structure conversation, which we have trialled with children in secure care. We were particularly moved when a young person got in touch after independently watching the animation to say that they wanted a lawyer like the one depicted, and we were able to go on to represent them. 
  • We have continued our conversations with children and young people about rights violations and possible routes to remedy. We are learning more about having these conversations where children are at, not overly stepping in to resolve things, and taking care when talking about legal rights when the reality is that rights are not being respected. 

What’s next… 

This first year has involved developing our knowledge and understanding, laying the groundwork so we are able to pursue strategic litigation should this be appropriate. As we move into year two we will be paying considerable attention to the use of offence grounds in the CHS and the consequences in relation to disclosure, alert to the potential for legal challenge and strategic litigation.  

We are also reflecting on decision making where the police jointly report a case to the COPFS and to SCRA. This involves more serious offending by children and COPFS make a decision as to whether the matter is to be pursued through the courts or the Children’s Hearing System. This is a critical decision-making juncture, as outcomes and experiences can vary significantly depending on whether a child experiences the justice or the Children’s Hearing System. We identified this decision as being an area of concern because it is not transparent, and thus it is unclear whether the child’s views or the context of their behaviour, is being taken into consideration. What our case work also revealed is that there are issues in relation to the timescales of decision-making, with some children waiting a year for a decision about whether a matter is to be pursued in the courts. We are looking to build our understanding about what is happening and how long decisions are taking, and we are considering appetite for a roundtable event towards the end of 2024. 

Do get in touch if you’d like to know more or discuss these issues with us.